Synopses & Reviews
Set in a Paris darkened by World War II, Sara Houghtelings sweeping and sensuous debut novel tells the story of a sons quest to recover his familys lost masterpieces, looted by the Nazis during the occupation.
Born to an art dealer and his pianist wife, Max Berenzon is forbidden from entering the family business for reasons he cannot understand. He reluctantly attends medical school, reserving his true passion for his fathers beautiful and brilliant gallery assistant, Rose Clément. When Paris falls to the Nazis, the Berenzons survive in hiding. They return in 1944 to find that their priceless collection has vanished: gone are the Matisses, the Picassos, and a singular Manet of mysterious importance. Madly driven to recover his fathers paintings, Max navigates a torn city of corrupt art dealers, black marketers, Résistants, and collaborators. His quest will reveal the tragic disappearance of his closest friend, the heroism of his lost love, and the truth behind a devastating family secret.
Written with tense drama and a historians eye for detail, Houghtelings novel draws on the real-life stories of Frances preeminent art-dealing familes and the forgotten biography of the only French woman to work as a double agent inside the Nazis looted art stronghold. Pictures at an Exhibition conjures the vanished collections, the lives of the artists and their dealers, the exquisite romance, and the shattering loss of a singular era. It is a work of astonishing ambition and beauty from an immensely gifted new novelist.
From the Hardcover edition.
A sweeping and sensuous novel of a son’s quest to recover his family’s lost masterpieces, looted by the Nazis during the occupation.
Max Berenzon’s father is the most successful art dealer in Paris, owner of the Berenzon Gallery, home to both Picasso and Matisse. To Max’s great surprise, his father forbids him from entering the family business, choosing instead to hire a beautiful and brilliant gallery assistant named Rose Clément. When Paris falls to the Nazis, the Berenzons survive in hiding, but when they return in 1944 their gallery is empty, their priceless collection vanished. In a city darkened by corruption and black martketers, Max chases his twin obsessions: the lost paintings and Rose Clément.
About the Author
Sara Houghteling is a graduate of Harvard College and received her master’s in fine arts from the University of Michigan. She is the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to Paris, first place in the Avery and Jules Hopwood Awards, and a John Steinbeck Fellowship. She lives in California, where she teaches high school English.
Reading Group Guide
“This book will conjure up the colors of Manet and Picasso more effectively than a glossy reproduction. . . . A thriller, a travelogue, and a mystery.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Sara Houghteling’s remarkable debut novel Pictures at an Exhibition.
1. Pictures at an Exhibition
is framed by the much older Max reflecting on his youth during the war years in Paris. How does this frame affect how the novel is read? Why does Max feel compelled to revisit his memories “determined to find the hidden vein of savagery within them”? [p. 3].
2. Sara Houghteling has obviously gathered a wealth of research for Pictures at an Exhibition. By what means does she manage to weave this information into a compelling fictional narrative? What is the effect of mixing both actual historical figures—like Rose Clément, Hermann Goering, and others—with purely fictional characters?
3. What are the pleasures of reading historical fiction? What might account for the great resurgence of the historical novel in past decade?
4. When he first meets him, Chaim asks Max if he is "lost in the spiritual sense” [p. 108]. Is Max spiritually lost? In what sense is his quest to find his father’s paitings a spiritual quest?
5. Rose tells Max: “I think that you are looking for extraordinary happiness, with me, with these lost paintings, and it is not here. Not in this lifetime. Only aspire, Max, to ordinary happiness” [p. 169]. Is Rose right about Max’s aspirations? Does he find “ordinary happiness” in the end?
6. In what ways is Max’s relationship with his father complicated and difficult? What does Max ultimately hope to accomplish by finding his father’s stolen paintings?
7. By what means is Rose able to lull the Nazis into trusting her? How does she manage to turn herself into a “registry of lost art” [p.151] and thereby help rescue hundreds of paintings after the war?
8. How does learning of his sister affect Max? Why does he consider it a betrayal that his parents and Rose have kept Micheline’s existence and her death a secret from him?
9. Late in the novel, it occurs to Max that “the child believes his parents’ behavior has everything to do with him, always, and that this will then be the source of a life’s worth of misunderstandings” [p. 219]. In what ways is this true of Max? What misunderstandings have resulted from his feeling that his parents’ behavior was always about him?
10. What does the love story—Max’s unrequited love for Rose—add to the novel? Why does Rose repeatedly reject him?
11. What does Pictures at an Exhibition reveal about the inner workings of the art world in Paris before, during, and after World War II? In what ways were art collectors and dealers often complicit in the theft and resale of great artworks during this period?
12. What are the many ways in which the theme of loss gets played out in the novel? What are the major losses that Max suffers?
13. After Max is mugged and beaten on the streets of Paris, he thinks to himself: “My father had been right—the paintings were not to be found—and had turned back as soon as he sensed this, which was almost instantly. I had gone on, blindly. I was a work on paper: weightless, sketchy, all impulse” [p. 210]. Why does Max keep searching “blindly” for his father’s paintings? In what sense is he a “work on paper, weightless, sketchy, all impulse”?
14. What does Pictures at an Exhibition add to our knowledge of World War II?
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